With the national budget to be announced on Oct 27, there have been calls to raise the duties and taxes on cigarettes, yet again. In fact, I do believe a senior lecturer wrote that we should increase the price of a pack of cigarettes to RM50.
To which, I have to ask - what is the senior lecturer smoking? Is it legal? And more importantly, where can I purchase it?
I have to say that any thought of raising the price of cigarettes needs to be stubbed out right now.
At present, we must acknowledge, without any further doubt, that any increase in cigarette taxes will neither increase government revenue nor reduce the smoking prevalence here. It will only contribute further to the increased sales of illicit cigarettes, which already make up more than half of the cigarettes sold in the country.
Recently we have seen a ridiculous debate on whether or not to allow the introduction of smaller packs of cigarettes to combat this menace.
While NGOs, and even the Ministry of Health have been busy opposing this proposal with petitions, having intellectuals speaking out and even to the point of having their doctors take to social media in a campaign against “kiddie packs”, something happened – the illicit cigarette traders introduced the so-called 10-pack cigarettes!
A local Malay newspaper reported on Oct 6 that these kiddie packs have already made their way into our country and are being sold for as little as RM2 and RM2.50.
Thus, due to the wise and thoughtful arguments of both those for and against smaller packs of cigarettes, we now see the illicit market moving faster than our government and even the tobacco industry.
I believe sarcastic congratulations are in order because, thanks to all those who have been furiously involved in the discussion on kiddie packs, the illicit cigarette traders have immediately jumped on the bandwagon of opportunity and taken this idea to town.
So let's ask the question - will raising taxes and duties to the point of a packet of cigarettes costing RM50 do anything to stem people from opting for something as cheap as RM2 or RM2.50?
Are we so blind to understand the implications of having illicit kiddie packs being priced at a mere RM2 and subsequently increasing taxes on cigarettes will just make the problem worse?
Subsequently, more teenagers now have access to illicit cigarettes priced cheaper than drinks at a mamak stall. Heck, it’s cheaper than some brands of mineral water.
What we truly need is not an increase in taxes for cigarettes, but to re-look into the availability of less harmful alternatives to smoking cigarettes – electronic cigarettes and the likes, which have been found to be 95 percent less harmful to smokers and even those around them.
E-cigarettes and other such devices have been so successful to wean people off cigarette smoking, that it has been promoted as part and parcel of this year’s Stoptober in the UK, to the point of vaping being featured in their month-long anti-smoking campaign.
As highlighted by their local news outlet BBC, the campaign throughout October has helped 1.5 million smokers kick the habit since 2012.
The need for such an alternative is becoming more urgent. This is because the menace of illicit cigarettes in our country is so huge that mere efforts through enforcement may not be sufficient to weed out illicit cigarettes.
In fact, those in the Health Ministry and NGOs are happy to pass the buck to the Customs Department, rather than acknowledge the illicit market as an issue that has contributed to the prevalence of smoking among the youth.
Will we still delay while more and more of the younger generation take up the smoking habit to their long-term detriment? Because, if so, then the next generations of cigarette smokers with health issues will be on the collective conscience of the government and the NGOs for failing to offer a less harmful alternative.
So perhaps the government, the Ministry of Health and all the other ministries involved, our leaders, and even the non-government health organisations, can share with us how far they have moved to get the sensible regulations and laws necessary to be passed for such less harmful alternatives?
Because this delaying of something proven to be less harmful than cigarette smoking is being rejected due to the small-minded ban that came out of baseless and unfounded health concerns, and now due to lagging movement in terms of regulations.
So, I’ll just end this by asking a simple question: is the Health Ministry totally blind to the rational policy of reducing harm whenever possible, and may in the future cause more harm with cigarette smoking?